Christian fiction is not dying, but it is changing, religion publishers say. According to Noelle Chew, the marketing director for fiction at Bethany House Publishers, “Tried and true genres of Americana historicals and Amish fiction continue to hold, but we are seeing some nice widening of interests.”
For several publishers of Christian fiction, it is the interests of authors that are broadening. A growing number of established novelists with significant fan bases are switching genres—with some making minor transitions, such as moving from mystery to psychological thrillers. Bethany House author Nancy Mehl, for example, has written more than 30 mysteries, but the first book in the new Kaely Quinn Profilers series, Mind Games (Dec.), features strong elements of behavioral and scientific analysis surrounding a string of murders and a targeted FBI agent.
Other authors are taking more distinct writing leaps. At Revell, bestselling author of Amish fiction Suzanne Woods Fisher is making her debut in contemporary romance with On a Summer Tide (Apr. 2019), the first book in the Three Sisters Island trilogy. According to Andrea Doering, Revell’s editorial director, authors who are shifting genres can bolster the entire Christian fiction category.
“We’ve had success with authors publishing in a few genres, and for us it’s been a way to find new readers for fantastic authors,” Doering says. “I love what I see in Christian fiction—a healthy mix of established and new authors, of staying power in some categories but also a willingness to publish well across many categories of fiction.”
Similarly moving from Amish fiction, Cindy Woodsmall’s first-ever romance, As the Tide Comes In, was just released by WaterBrook. Set in the South and written with Woodsmall’s daughter-in-law, Erin Woodsmall, the book follows one woman’s search for healing and the truth following a devastating loss and a traumatic injury.
This fall, Thomas Nelson has three authors writing outside of their signature genres, including Terri Blackstock, who has sold more than seven million copies of her suspense novels combined in the U.S. alone, according to the publisher. Nevertheless, Blackstock is broadening her creative horizons with her debut romance novel, Catching Christmas (Oct.), which follows a first-year law associate and a struggling chef who help an elderly woman realize her greatest Christmas wish. Also releasing in October is contemporary women’s fiction author Patti Callahan Henry’s debut in historical fiction, Becoming Mrs. Lewis, which is based on the relationship between C.S. Lewis and his wife, Joy Davidman (see “The Woman Beside C.S. Lewis,” p. 22). Lastly, longtime Amish fiction author Kelly Irvin’s suspense novel Tell Her No Lies, about a photojournalist’s search for truth and justice after becoming the prime suspect in her uncle’s murder, is due in November.
“Testing the waters of other genres of Christian fiction is not new, but the practice is gaining momentum,” says Cynthia Ruchti, a novelist and the spokeswoman for American Christian Fiction Writers, an organization dedicated to publishing professionals that has more than 2,500 members. “Some novelists who have been writing in one genre for decades, perhaps, are trying their hand at something fresh, other novelists are looking to intentionally reach another segment of the reader population, still others are looking for their sweet spot.”
Tales That Pack Truths
While some Christian fiction authors are experimenting with different genres, other authors are adding weight to the subject matter of their books. As part of a recent trend, Christian fiction continues to address contemporary issues, and the result is what some publishers describe as edgier content. New and forthcoming titles in the category delve into mental illness, drug use, sexual assault, and other controversial issues.
For example, InterVarsity Press’s Formatio line is adding to its bestselling Sensible Shoes series by Sharon Garlough Brown, which has sold 130,000 copies since 2010, according to the publisher. Not yet titled, the next book is coming in fall 2019 and will follow a Christian character that is coping with depression, including a subsequent hospitalization, therapy, and the use of medication.
“The book includes some occasions of unhelpful advice from Christians who believe that healing can take place solely through trusting God or activities such as Scripture memory,” says Cynthia Bunch, associate publisher, director of editorial at IVP. “I do think it’s a bit of an edgy book for the Christian fiction genre, and it is a topic that Christians need to be addressing and normalizing.”
Frank McKinney addresses issues related to special needs parenting, marriage, faith, and more in The Other Thief (HCI, Sept.), which will have a 10,000-copy initial printing, according to the publisher. Delayed Justice by Cara Putman (Thomas Nelson, Oct.) features a victim of childhood sexual abuse who must come forward to help others—a timely topic in the era of #MeToo.
Looking further ahead, fiction and nonfiction author Travis Thrasher is venturing into speculative fiction with American Omens (WaterBrook, Feb. 2019). The book is set in the U.S. in 2038 and explores the ramifications of the breakdown of religious liberties, according to the publisher. Also coming from Thomas Nelson, Robin Lee Hatcher’s Cross My Heart (June 2019) follows two characters who are fighting alcohol and opioid addictions and who find hope in God.
Shifts in content can be traced to the demands of readers who have more opportunities than ever to make their voices heard in the industry, according to Tyndale senior acquisitions editor Stephanie Broene. “In a marketplace where publishers are competing with all sources of entertainment, the way readers choose to spend their disposable income gives them a voice,” she says. “If they want to see more of a certain thing, like new authors, or more real-life content, or books with a more diverse cast of characters, then [readers] should spend dollars on authors who are currently trying those things—easy to find with a little research.”
Though Christian fiction has its challenges—including pricing pressure, shifts in the popularity of its genres, and scaled-back publishing programs—many publishers remain optimistic about its future.
At Kregel, sales in fiction remain steady in part because the publisher does not target specific genres, according to acquisitions editor Janyre Tromp. “Instead, we look for a particular archetype,” she says. “If you examine novels that endure the test of time, you’ll find books that echo our goals for the Kregel fiction line: a novel written with impeccable technique that asks and explores hard questions and relationships in the safe space of story.”
Kregel’s frontlist includes Heather Munn’s Flame in the Night (Sept.), which is based on actual events in Nazi-occupied Vichy France, and A Hero for Miss Hatherleigh (Apr. 2019) by Carolyn Miller, which follows a young woman’s struggles with questions about friendship and faith.
“While certain segments of the fiction category are struggling, we’re seeing strong sales and growth with our top authors, proving that there is still a strong appetite for fiction, and loyalty can overcome what might otherwise be a price barrier,” says Tyndale’s Broene.
The publisher relies on fresh content from its bestselling authors, including Francine Rivers’s The Masterpiece (out now) and Joel C. Rosenberg’s The Persian Gamble (Mar. 2019). Tyndale is also looking to movie tie-ins following the success of 2015’s War Room by Chris Fabry; the novelization of the film directed by the Kendrick brothers has sold more than 300,000 copies to date, the publisher says. Fabry’s Overcomer, the novelization of a new Kendrick Brothers film, is coming in July 2019.
“It’s all about discoverability and standing out in a crowded market,” Broene says.
Revell’s Doering also remains committed to the category, and has no plans to decrease output or abandon specific genres. “Stories that are redemptive and hopeful, that honor both humanity and God’s activity in our lives—I don’t see the need for those stories going away,” she says.
Correction: A previous version of this article misquoted Stephanie Broene as referring to publishers spending dollars on authors trying new things. It has been updated to reflect she was referring to readers.